Race and Class Reductionism Today

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Recent debates among socialists often center around questions of class, specifically of class reductionism. Some people call activists and theorists “class reductionists” because they focus on universal “class” demands and they refuse to “confuse the issue” with “divisive” considerations of race or gender. These supposed class reductionists critique “bothandism”, a position taken by “identarian leftists”. The supposed class reductionists say that socialists shouldn’t focus on race and gender relations, but rather focus on “class” relations.

But what is a class reductionist? That depends on your class analysis, or how you think about the relations of production that constitute class struggle itself.

Relations of production are at the heart of Marxist theory. A relation of production is how people relate to one another and how they relate to non-human stuff as they make their lives together materially.

Take a farm, for example. We don’t know the political economy of that farm unless we know the relations of production dominant there. Exploitative capitalist relations of production would have private ownership of the farm by a few and wage labor for the rest. Communal or cooperative relations of production would have ownership of the farm by the workers.

Typically, Marxists want to change relations of production in a social formation from something like the former to something like the latter.

But if you want to change a relation of production in some particular society, like the United States in 2018, you have to know all the ways those relations of production hold between people and their environments. To change a relation of production, you have to get at exactly what keeps that relation of production in place so you can derive the requisite strategy for getting people relating to one another materially in a different way.

If you’re not living under a rock in the United States right now, you probably know that race is very impactful in the society. Race means a lot to people for a variety of reasons, and many of those reasons are material reasons: what jobs they get, how much money they make, how much wealth they hold, how they can provide for themselves and their families…

If you want to change the relations of production in the USA, you have to think of race as an integral, crucial, load-bearing feature of our relations of production. Treating it otherwise is just bad class analysis.

A position that doesn’t do this couldn’t be class reductionism. That’s why the supposed class reductionists among us aren’t even class reductionists.

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When it comes to race and class reductionism, the question is whether all social relations are relations of production.

A strong position here would be that all relations in a social formation are relations of production to some degree. Socialists who worked in the nexus between labor and the civil rights movement, particularly during Freedom Budget for all Americans project, took this strong position. David Roediger’s use of W.E.B Du Bois’s “wages of whiteness” in telling the history of racism in America is one example. While it may surprise some, Adolph Reed Jr.’s writings (which can differ from his current followers and even his own statements) have examples of the position.  Keeanga Yamhatta-Taylor has called for this strong class analysis in her reading of Marx and Lenin in From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. Social reproductionists like Tithi  Battacharya, Sue Ferguson and David McNally also take this route in their concept of unity in difference. Asad Haider has put forward insurgent universality for this purpose too.

In each of these cases, the extent to which race has a determinate effect on access to jobs, pay, wealth/holdings, housing and access to services, is the extent to which race relations are relations of production.

A weaker position would be that some relations, like race, aren’t relations of production at all.

The supposed class reductionists take this weaker position. They’ll write, for instance, that things like race and gender and religion are culturally contingent to workers reproducing themselves and therefore don’t correlate with production. Only the wage relation is a relation of production because it’s “obdurate” and “objective” according to Vivek Chibber, who writes that, “[w]hereas most other relations have to depend on a contingent process of role identification on the part of agents, class radically reduces the contingency of whether or not such an identification will occur.”

I’d disagree here and take the strong position, that each of those relations–while perhaps contingent and more complex across territories and social formations–are relations of production to the extent that they have an impact on whether/how people make their lives materially.

These supposed class reductionists adhere to a kind of strict consensus that there are some social relations that aren't relations of production to any degree. This weaker thesis, which is, overall, a weaker class analysis, is a kind of separatist thesis on relations of production: that some social relations, like race, should be separate when thinking about relations of production. The unified thesis is much stronger class analysis.

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Take the example of gentrification. Adolph Reed Jr.[1], in a February piece at nonsite.org, “Black Politics after 2016”, examines the problem of “representation”:

The norm of representation as embodiment of appropriate categories of identity gives private and nonprofit contractors an easy standard of legitimacy that collapses possible differences on policy issues and directions into vacant liberal proceduralism (having a “seat at the table”) and Victorian racialist mysticism (“reflecting the perspective of the X”).

He’s calling out the trend of “embodying appropriate categories of identity” and the ways the ruling class can use this against serious challenges to their power in housing. Then Reed writes this about gentrification:

Debate over displacement for upscaling redevelopment is a case in point. In opting for a language of “gentrification,” opponents of displacement, often without intending to do so, cloud a simple, straightforward dynamic—public support of private developers’ pursuit of rent-intensifying redevelopment—with cultural implications that shift critique away from the issue of using public authority to engineer upward redistribution and impose hardship on relatively vulnerable residents. Instead, discussion of gentrification slides into objections about display of privilege, and lack of recognition or respect that, notwithstanding the moral outrage that accompanies them, accept the logic of rent-intensifying redevelopment as given and demand that newcomers acknowledge and honor aboriginal habitus and practices and that the “community” be involved in the processes of upgrading.

He continues to say that this

culturalist discourse also opens opportunities for petty, and not so petty, entrepreneurship in the name of respect or recognition of the community, within the logic of neoliberalization.

So here we’ve got a good case of relations of production: relations of housing production. We’ve also got a question about the role of “identity” in the fight against the ruling class to accumulate through dispossession via development.

Reed’s position is that consideration of cultural practices, awareness of displays of privilege, and awareness of ways of life in the existing community all “slide” into complicity with the ruling class and “cloud” a simple and straightforward issue. Reed even disagrees with the term “gentrification” as a racial concept since, according to him, it signals this sliding and clouding of the simple issue.

Using the schematic we’ve been working on here, let’s assume that all social relations are relations of production to some degree. This means the relations of housing production will be racial to some degree.

In housing, the question that Reed asks us to think about–which is helpful!–is whether or not our concept of the gentry, or ruling class, should be “racial” as well as “distributive” (if you’re even on board with a distinction between the two): whether race relations should be considered as relations of production in the housing sector.

It’s easy to see this is the case, particularly in Reed’s own city of Philadelphia. The Pew Charitable Trust did a study of gentrification in Philly in 2016. Their definition is entirely based on income and wealth holdings. They found that “[t]he three predominantly working-class African-American tracts that gentrified, all of which are located in the neighborhood known as Graduate Hospital, experienced the most dramatic changes in racial composition. Their total black population fell from 7,793 in 2000 to 3,450 in 2014. During the same period, the number of white residents more than tripled in the neighborhood.”

Further: “Home prices rose the most (more than 1,000 percent in one tract) in gentrified areas where there had been relatively high numbers of investor-owned and vacant properties in 2000 and where many of the neighborhoods’ housing units have been built in the years since: the old industrial and working-class African-American tracts.”

The relations of housing production in Reed’s own city are thoroughly racial in character. Certainly Reed would never take issue with that point. The question is where that racialization occurs in our concept of class. Either race relations are in the process of gentrification itself, located in the relation of production, or external to it. Dismissing race relations as “clouding” an otherwise simple issue of “upward distribution” is threatens to weaken the class analysis of the situation by separating out race relations from relations of production.

More to the point, this theoretical separation is bad strategy: if we’re going to organize around dispossession and displacement in housing, we better take race relations seriously as we attempt to shift the relations of production, particularly given the outsized impact of white housing trends in traditionally black neighborhoods in the city.

Demos did a national survey recently on effective race/class messaging for progressive and leftist groups, specifically around issue campaigns.

They surveyed 1,500 people in March of this year. Their sample included a base of core supporters for progressive causes, persuadables, and opposition conservatives across region, age, identity group, and class. They found that “[base supporters] say that there is too little attention paid to race and racial issues in America today, while opposition say there is too much attention.”

They therefore recommend that “it helps to evoke race when articulating an agenda to make life better for working people.” For example, they say to craft language such as “[w]orking people whether white, Black or brown” instead of just saying “working people” because “[m]aking race explicit increases enthusiasm of our base and persuades a greater number in the middle toward our solutions.”

They advocate the message that we should “join together across racial differences” instead of “join together with others in your community” because “accusing our opponents of dividing us can come across as its own form of division; calls for unity are critical.”

A stronger, unified class analysis knows this is true. It’s almost insultingly obvious. Only a weaker, separatist class analysis would deny it.

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This weaker class analysis is supposedly class reductionism. But is it class reductionism?

There’s a two-step process Reed and Chibber and others follow. First, this supposed class reductionist distinguishes race from class, creating a dichotomy between them such that there’s an either/or.

Second, after distinguishing them, they suppose an essence/phenomena relationship between race and class. Race, and all of identity, is now “cultural” for instance: contingent and inessential to the more important matter at hand, which they say is class. Race becomes causally and politically subordinate to class.

This is why the supposed class reductionists aren’t class reductionist: class reductionism is too kind a designation for what I understand this position to be. It’s just a bad class analysis to dichotomize “race” relations from “class” relations and then essentialize the latter as an underlying cause of the former's contingent, “rhetorical” phenomena. This is a weak, separatist concept of relations of production.

The stronger, unified, integrated concept of relations of production outlined here would (a) not create a dichotomy between “race” and “class” and (b) avoid any argument that “race” is a function or phenomenon of a more essential “class” process. These terms should refer to fluid aspects of a unified relation of production predominant in the society. Separating them isn’t class reductionism because it’s bad class analysis. Reed has even advanced versions of this position in the past:

Race is a taxonomy of ascriptive difference, that is, an ideology that constructs populations as groups and sorts them into hierarchies of capacity, civic worth, and desert based on “natural” or essential characteristics attributed to them. Ideologies of ascriptive difference help to stabilize a social order by legitimizing its hierarchies of wealth, power, and privilege, including its social division of labor, as the natural order of things

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To end on a practical note, not only is the separatist position bad class analysis, it can lead to bad class strategy and practice.

On the left, our theories can inspire how we plan and behave in organizations. When we have conversations, listen to others, plan and participate in meetings, and generally do the work of changing relations of production, separating out certain social relations from our concept of class will make us blind and deaf and dumb to the actually existing complexity of the terrain on which we have to fight. The new separatists have influenced leaders in organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America and others. My hope with this essay, by shifting the focus of the debate about race and class reductionism today to relations of production, is one step towards keeping us on track to win the world we want.

The author would like to thank participants in the DSA National Discussion Forums for engaging in debate around the above arguments.

David I. Backer will moderate “Race, Class, and the Left Today: A Conversation between Asad Haider and Keeanga Yamhatta-Taylor.” He is a member of Philadelphia Democratic Socialists of America, active with the Local Initiative/Local Action Committee’s racial justice group (LILAC). He’s also an assistant professor of Social Foundations of Education at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. His most recent academic work focuses on “Socialist Grading.”


[1] There’s a difference between Reed and Reedism. Throughout his career, Reed has been prolific on the subject of race, in many cases articulating subte and insightful positions on race and class. The ways his current work is taken up in mainstream debates however, and sometimes his own statements in public fora, are quite different than the more thoughtful positions you can find in the full breadth of his  work.